One cannot help but feel a sense of pride for Chris Pratt being a native Washingtonian who struck big in Hollywood relatively after a pair of overnights, his starring roles on the still eponymous Parks and Rec and Everwood, along with the rounds in a few sophomoric big-screen comedies would open major doors into the realm of franchise fodder, jumpstarting one, inserting into another, and then assisting to create a third, brick by precisely crafted brick. Reuniting with Legoverse collaborator Chris McKay (co-director on the original 2014 Lego Movie) to lead his first foray in live-action equates to Pratt’s revisiting of a street corner he’s only tackled once before to mixed results: a standalone, original sci-fi story. We have that once again in The Tomorrow War, a wide-scoped tale of alien fights and family healing. How the pair weave together is astonishing, albeit bereft of emotional latching. It’s this summer’s first ideal popcorn movie, in a nutshell; robbed of its theatrical dues by having been repurposed for a wide home release on Prime, the feeling is slightly flavorless.
Pratt plays Dan Forester, once a decorated Green Beret fighting in Iraq, now a high school biology teacher in the year 2022, itching to take his game one level higher in the fields of scientific research. The weekend before Christmas winds up being a rather lousy day for him: he doesn’t make the cut for the new gig, the right team is poised to win at the World Cup, and news comes down the pike of an alien eradication in the year 2051. Soldiers from the future ultimately spoil the game, as well as Dan’s fragile family bond. He was already on thin ice with less than understanding wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and over-aspiring daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). But now to be conscripted into this fight for the future further exposes his raw nerve. Typical mid-life crisis stuff, but with aliens thrown in. Here, they’re named “White Spikes”, and they make the noise-sensitive creatures from A Quiet Place look even uglier, more ill-refined. Even that couldn’t be considered a compliment.
Pratt is certainly up to the challenge of an inviting, albeit generic-looking alien shoot-em-up, his character isn’t. Even with experience on a battlefield, nothing could prep Patterson for landing feet first in a rooftop swimming pool, facing these extraterrestrial beings head on in what starts out as a rescue mission on behalf of his CO (Yvonne Strahovski), and with encouragement from his estranged dad (J.K. Simmons), but finds much more than entirely expected. Even I wasn’t sure what to expect, McKay and screenwriter Zach Dean (24 Hours to Live) deserve some kudos for keeping the element of surprise firm in hand as Pratt muddles about from scene to scene, tempering the chauvinistic wit of his Peter Quill character for something a bit more focused.
The material is very much a double-edged sword, however. Dean’s script does plenty to insist on the presence of originality. The family yarn he spins does show some promise. But there’s not enough steam in the tank to perhaps justify seeds being planted to launch another franchise for Pratt to grace. At over two and a quarter hours, whatever fuel is there is only barely enough to move things along, running on an overly familiar pattern McTiernan, Verhoeven, or even Liman could each manage in their sleep. In McKay’s hands, it’s like a discordant music box only managing a pair of decent notes. That energy belongs to the cast, working overtime. Strahovski, who will always be remembered for being the other half in the cult series Chuck, makes for a fair co-lead. Accessories to the combat emerge through Earth Science major Charlie (Sam Richardson) and cancer patient Dorian (Edwin Hodge), and both do hold their own well on the virtue of comic relief. Mary Lynn Rajskub appears additionally to bolster the need for civilian support, but it’s a rather one-note presence.
A film like The Tomorrow War should’ve left me holding onto my seat (i.e., my computer chair). My hands may have been more on my desk, holding steady while attention was slowly sapped. While nothing ever gets boring, it’s not at all that hair-raising, either. McKay has no trouble in staging some grandiose action sequences, shot with skillful ease by Larry Fong (The Predator). There’s no reluctance in his mind with that singular element. In realizing Dean’s story, the biggest issue he couldn’t resolve is merging each separate ingredient into a comfortable mixture. And in turn, that attracts a few unpleasant potholes to navigate. The film’s plenty laughable, the camaraderie Pratt and Richardson share is nothing short of genuine. Simmons does get in on that activity in spots, even if his own arc bordered on lackluster and open-ended. The lines of tenderness for Dan and his trying to be a better father, emphasized greatly as something he must work towards while unraveling the mystery of these pleasantly crafted CG monsters works along the same path.
But how any of that is supposed to blend while maintaining the motif of an action-heavy summer popcorn movie, that is a conundrum McKay can’t seem to resolve. The longer it takes to reach any sort of effective follow-through with these elements, the more obvious it is how this story appears more manufactured than organically grown. Just like the robot mech suits each soldier is assigned for their initial combat, there’s a heartbeat within. But the moving metallic parts (Lorne Balfe’s musical backdrops being the largest culprit) are a bit louder, and often distracting from the activity on hand. If there was a full empathic range with these characters, it stopped short by just a few clicks, belaboring what’s present to a point of utter exhaustion only satisfied by the credits rolling.
By that point, if one is left wondering what could’ve been instead of newfound optimism in a tactical plan to hunt down reclusive aliens before they make a real mess, the feeling will be mutual. If The Tomorrow War was intended to launch some larger cinematic scheme as opposed to being a self-contained tale of family and evil lifeforms, it misses the mark. Even still, it doesn’t even graze the bullseye. It looks fine, sounds nominal, and the cast is on point. The landscape they’re plopped onto is unforgiving, so is the thread connecting everything together. It’s a long commitment of a film if there isn’t much beyond the mechanics of filmmaking to present. Some pieces of a humanist yarn preside, as a parent looks to rebuild lost bonds. Outside that, it’s a downright disappointing sci-fi charade whose future potential stops very, very short. We’re better off heading back to the past, where the alien vs human subgenre was always more sensical, and a little kinder. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Tomorrow War is currently streaming on Prime Video; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some suggestive references; 138 minutes.